“Sustainability” can be defined in many ways. In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in agricultural methods that conserve energy resources, enhance soil fertility, prevent damage to natural resources, keep more dollars in the hands of farmers, and connect local consumers with local producers. All play a part in creating a sustainable system, and there are various organizations, agencies, and individuals dedicated to researching and promoting these practices.
Here is our particular approach to sustainable agriculture, and our view of how we might improve our systems here in Maine.
The System: Vertical vs. Horizontal
Imagine the system which produces food and other farm products as a set of vertically-connected activities. At the bottom is the input sector, ranging upward to food and fiber production, the marketing sector, and finally to the consumer at the top. In this model, farmers have essentially two ways to increase activity – and thus income. First, they can expand “horizontally” within the food and fiber sector – by expanding acreage and/or herd size. Second, they can expand “vertically” into the input or marketing sectors – by incorporating more of their own input or marketing into their farm’s operating strategy.
Given the limited agricultural land base in Maine, the first option, to increase acreage and/or herd size, is only available to a small number of farms. On the other hand, the second option is available to most farms in Maine, in one manner or another. Our mission addresses this second option:
The mission of MESAS is to explore, develop and promote agricultural systems and practices that allow Maine farmers to retain a greater share of consumer expenditures for farm products. This will be accomplished by developing methods to reduce the need for purchased inputs and by adding value to farm production.
Reducing the Need for Purchased Inputs
Currently, only a very small portion of every consumer dollar spent on farm products actually ends up in farmers’ hands; a vast majority of each dollar goes to the input and marketing sectors. Farmers can obtain a greater portion, or share, of every consumer dollar spent on farm products by reducing the need for purchased inputs. Examples of ways that farmers may do this are:
- growing grains to feed their livestock (thus eliminating the need to purchase those feed grains)
- rotational grazing to eliminate mechanical harvest and feed systems, recycle nutrients, and reduce anthelmintics
- rotating cash crops (so as to reduce the need for pesticides)
- growing cover crops (which also can reduce the need for pesticides, as well as reduce the need for purchased fertilizers)
Adding Value to Farm Production
- value-added processing of the product (e.g., processing berries into jam, or peeling carrots)
- distributing their product directly to the customer (thus enabling the farmer to obtain some of the distribution margin for their product)
- selling directly to the end-user (which enables the farmer to obtain the entire marketing margin for the product)
Healthy Communities and Ecosystems
While the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society explicitly supports farmers obtaining a greater share of consumer expenditures for farm products, it also implicitly supports a healthy environment and strong communities. For farming to be sustainable for one generation, let alone multiple generations, it requires productive and healthy ecosystems from which to produce farm products, and a strong and supportive community in which farm families may thrive. These key aspects of a vibrant farm sector – healthy ecosystems, and strong and supportive communities – are not independent of each other, but rather are inextricably intertwined. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have one without the other.